Different Note - Analog Days
By Albert Isaac
I’ve always enjoyed experimenting with things. In fact, when I was a youngster I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up -- at least until I found out how much math is involved in science.
I deplored math, mostly because I wasn’t very good at it. And it was boring and tedious. I couldn’t even remember my street address. My dad got so frustrated with me, trying to get me to remember it.
“But Dad,” I pleaded, “I’m only 21!”
OK, that’s an exaggeration. No really. It is. I was just a kid, but the fact remains I had real trouble remembering numbers. I blame my English brain.
Nevertheless, I wanted to invent things. I wanted to create. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a scientist to create things. I like to draw. Play music. Take photographs. Write stories. Make movies.
I was one of the very few kids my age to have a movie camera. I saved up enough money from my paper route to buy a Bell & Howell Super-8 Movie outfit. You can imagine my excitement when I shot my first roll of film, got it back from the lab and watched it in brilliant color on the silver screen.
One day my buddy and I were brainstorming movie ideas. He asked if we could make a film like the commercials where a guy sits on the street and slides around as if he were driving a car.
My camera wasn’t made to do that. But I understood the concept. It was simply a matter of me snapping a single frame of him sitting on the ground and then having him move up a few inches and assume the position again while I snap another frame. So on and so forth. I reckoned I could just tap the shutter button and hope that only one frame would click off.
Keep in mind, Super-8 movie cameras shot 18 frames per second. In other words, for each second of action, my buddy had to sit down, get back up, and sit down 18 times.
This was way before digital cameras could give us instant feedback. We would have to shoot the entire 50-foot film cartridge, which was about three minutes and 20 seconds of film, before we would even know if our little experiment worked. Now, if I did my math right (I’ve gotten better at it), that’s 3,600 single frames. That’s him getting up and down 3,600 times while I tap that shutter button. Three thousand six hundred times.
Let that sink in.
But hey, we were teenagers with time on our hands so why not give it a go?
We did a trial run. Using a makeshift tripod with wobbly and warped wooden legs that I’d found in the garbage, we shot our first clip of him popping a wheelie and racing down the sidewalk on his buttocks. We shot a few more ‘stop-action’ clips and then used up the rest of the cartridge filming regular-motion antics just so we could get it to the lab.
And then we waited. And waited. In those days there was no such thing as instant gratification. Well, except with Polaroids. Finally the movie was ready and I rode my bike down to the lab and picked it up.
To our amazement and delight, our technique actually worked. It was, however, super jerky because of the so-called tripod, so I convinced my dad to get me a real one for my birthday (I promised I would learn my address) and my friend and I began making all kinds of stop-action silliness. We even made a short cartoon. This artistic masterpiece of a flying centipede took over 70 separate drawings to complete and clocked in at about four seconds.
As our technique got better we tried longer scenes. In one shot my friend raced towards the camera from waaaaay down the street. I can only imagine what the neighbors must have thought seeing this crazy teen sit down on the hot pavement, hold a pose with hands on an invisible steering wheel, get back up and do it again. And again. And again. Moving inches at a time. With no camera in sight they must have thought him to be mad. Which clearly he was.
In another, he raced across the rugged road of a rock quarry, which wore holes in the seat of his pants and put blisters on his palms.
I tried other experiments as well; bolted the camera to the handlebars of my 10-speed and filmed a high-speed chase down a bike trail; created stop-action movies of a troll (doll) ‘walking’ across the table top; hung a model of “The Invaders” flying saucer on a fishing line and filmed it hovering in a sunset-colored sky.
Long ago, my old Super-8 broke and I threw it away. It wasn’t made to be used as a one-frame-at-a-time camera. But I sure got my money out of it.
Those were magical times, those analog days. No ones and zeroes of the computer age making magic happen, but tangible things that you could touch and hold, such as editing equipment and splicing tape, movie film and plastic models.
Don’t get me wrong; I fully embrace the new technology and continue to make silly movies, now in hi-definition with sound. And I imagine generations from now my great-grandkids might be watching my movies from before the turn of the century – and after.
But it sure was fun to pop on a reel of film, click on that old projector and fill the screen with moving pictures. §